How our education system is performing for literacy: Progress and achievement of New Zealand learners in English medium settings

 
How our education system is performing for
literacy: Progress and achievement of New
Zealand learners in English medium settings

Paper compiled by Robyn Caygill with Becky Zhao, Helen Hunter, and Sandra Park
Contents

Contents ........................................................................................................ i
Introduction.................................................................................................. 1
  Data sources ............................................................................................................................... 1
  Scope and limitations .................................................................................................................. 1
  Recommended reading ............................................................................................................... 2
Summary of findings ................................................................................... 3
  Overall......................................................................................................................................... 3
  Achievement and progress .......................................................................................................... 3
  Student confidence and interest .................................................................................................. 4
  Teaching Practices ...................................................................................................................... 4
  Primary school – Years 1 to 3 ..................................................................................................... 4
  Primary School - Years 4 to 8 ...................................................................................................... 5
  Secondary school, particularly Years 9 to 11 ............................................................................... 5
Te Whariki and the New Zealand Curriculum ............................................ 6
Progress and Achievement......................................................................... 7
  Early learning .............................................................................................................................. 7
  Primary School ............................................................................................................................ 9
  Secondary schooling – Years 9 to 13 ........................................................................................ 13
  Learners with learning support needs ........................................................................................ 15
  Key takeaways about achievement and progress...................................................................... 16
Student confidence and interest .............................................................. 17
  Key takeaways about student confidence and interest .............................................................. 19
Teaching in the Early Years ...................................................................... 20
  Literacy learning in early learning services ................................................................................ 21
  Transition to primary school ...................................................................................................... 24
Teaching in Primary and Secondary Schooling ...................................... 26
  Primary School - Years 1 to 3 .................................................................................................... 26
  Primary School - Years 4 to 8 .................................................................................................... 30
  Secondary school particularly Years 9 to 11 .............................................................................. 37
  Teaching in general – primary and secondary schools combined .............................................. 40
  Key takeaways about teaching .................................................................................................. 42
References ................................................................................................. 43

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Introduction

Literacy has traditionally been thought of as reading and writing. Although these are essential
components of literacy, today our understanding of literacy encompasses much more. Literacy
refers to the ability to read, write, speak, listen, view, and present in a way that lets us
communicate effectively and make sense of the world.
Having strong literacy knowledge, skills and capabilities is key to ensuring our learners have the
access to all learning areas in the curriculum and a lifelong development after school years.
This paper has been developed to provide an overview of the latest key findings about
achievement, progress, and teaching practices for literacy, across a range of large-scale data
sources. These findings give us a broad picture of how our education system is performing for
literacy learning, in English-medium early learning and schools. It also brings together information
about the common practices New Zealand teachers use in teaching literacy skills.

Data sources
This paper is built upon findings from a range of national studies of student achievement, including:
   •   Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) longitudinal study at age 4.5
   •   National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA), conducted with Year 4 and
       Year 8 students, their teachers, and their schools
   •   The electronic assessment tool for teaching and learning (e-asTTle), developed
       primarily for learners in Years 5 to 10
   •   Data from the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA), for secondary
       students
   •   Reviews conducted by the Education Review Office on literacy and assessment
It also includes the following international studies to give us a view of how our learners perform
compared to their peers in other countries:
   •   The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), conducted with Year 5
       students, their teachers, and their schools
   •   Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted with 15-year-old
       students.
References for the research used can be found at the end of this paper.

Scope and limitations
This is not a full and extensive review of everything we might know about progress and
achievement in Aotearoa New Zealand, as it was intended to give a broad picture of literacy
learning. There was also limited data and research available for literacy achievement in early
learning and about learners with learning support needs. Literacy across the curriculum and
learning subject-specific ways of presenting and speaking as well as subject-specific language are
also not included in this paper.
Evidence shows that doing well in reading is linked with children’s view of themselves as learners,
their beliefs and values, and their abilities to regulate their own behaviours. As children progress
through schooling, these personal attributes come to be very important. We have touched on this
in the paper but haven’t gone deeply into the detail of this important area of influence.
While data on differences across population groups has been included, it is important to note that
much of the evidence represents associations and does not imply causations. The relationships
between classroom, or early learning or family / whānau practices with learning and achievement

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are associations (correlations) and not necessarily causal. Further research is currently underway
to explore the role of wider social context in students’ academic outcomes.
For this paper, we have focused primarily on information about two interconnected aspects of
literacy. As defined in the New Zealand Curriculum, these two strands encompass the oral, written,
and visual forms of the language. The two aspects are:
   •   making meaning of ideas or information they receive (Listening, Reading, and Viewing);
       and
   •   creating meaning for themselves or others (Speaking, Writing, and Presenting)
Further research is needed to develop a better understanding of other aspects of literacy learning,
including the development of digital literacy skills.

Recommended reading
This paper looks at the high-level messages in a range of research. For further details, we
recommend reading the source material.
In addition to the references in this paper, the Literacy Landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand by
Prof Stuart McNaughton, Chief Science Advisor to the Ministry of Education, considers evidence of
what works to lift progress and achievement for learners in early learning and schooling. It provides
supplementary evidence for how best to improve children and young persons’ literacy development
in Aotearoa New Zealand.
A copy of the full Literacy Landscape report can be found here:
https://cpb-ap-se2.wpmucdn.com/blogs.auckland.ac.nz/dist/f/688/files/2020/01/The-Literacy-
Landscape-in-Aotearoa-New-Zealand-Full-report-final.pdf

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Summary of findings

Overall
Looking across several data sources, we can see that many New Zealand students are performing
well against national and international benchmarks of literacy achievement. Many students are also
making good progress at an expected pace throughout year levels.
At the same time, however, we also saw a wide variation in both achievement and progress within
year levels, across sub-populations, and across aspects of literacy. This variation in achievement
is broader than many other comparable countries. We have also seen some significant decreases
in average achievement over recent years. Although many of our learners are progressing at a
similar rate on average, it is of concern that learners who start at a lower point often do not catch
up, and some learners make very little progress in a year.
Many students liked reading and many were confident in their reading and writing abilities.
However, there were a significant portion of readers who were not confident and did not enjoy
reading and did not do well in reading. Evidence tells us that not all learners are getting sufficient
opportunities to learn and improve their literacy skills. This is particularly the case for many of our
Māori and Pacific learners who experience lower expectations than other learners, and therefore
their opportunities to learn are often less.
Across the education sector, teachers reflected regularly about their practice, and accessed
relevant PLD and resources to support their teaching practice. Most teachers feel confident using a
variety of assessment strategies, particularly experienced teachers. However, the methods and
strategies used by teachers in lessons varied greatly across New Zealand classrooms.

Achievement and progress
•   New Zealand performs relatively well on international measures of reading literacy, but there is
    a wide range of achievement on aspects of literacy among learners before schooling and in
    both primary and secondary schooling. Depending on the aspect of literacy learning (writing,
    reading, listening, or viewing), estimates put the disparities as wide as 4 years of schooling.
•   This variation is evident across sub-populations. Proportionately more girls than boys do well in
    aspects of literacy – that is, they perform at or above expectations for their year level. More
    learners from economically advantaged backgrounds, and more learners attending schools
    with higher concentrations of those economically advantaged learners do well in aspects of
    literacy. Proportionately more Asian and Pākehā European learners (proportionately more of
    whom attend higher socio-economic schools) do well in aspects of literacy.
•   Rates of progress appear similar across all subpopulations on average and differences in
    achievement appear to be due to different starting points. At a system-level therefore, those
    who start behind for literacy learning, or who fall behind early, often do not catch up.
•   The opportunities to learn vary for different learners and research shows that many Māori and
    Pacific learners experience lower expectations for outcomes than other learners, and therefore
    their opportunities to learn are often less.
•   In recent years we have seen declines in average reading literacy achievement in international
    studies at both the primary and secondary level. At the same time, we have seen increases in
    the proportions of learners achieving NCEA qualifications. However, despite the increase in
    NCEA attainment, many learners still lack the opportunity to learn and this is cause for
    concern.

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•   We don’t have much data about learners with learning support needs. We could infer from the
    international studies that there is still unmet need that needs addressing.

Student confidence and interest
•   Many children in New Zealand enjoy reading, but they were much less confident about
    themselves as readers compared with their international counterparts. As they grow older, they
    become less positive and less confident about reading. Many felt more confident in some tasks
    than others. Since 2009, fewer 15-year-olds enjoy reading and a large proportion of them do
    not read for fun.
•   More girls felt positive and confident in their reading and writing abilities than boys, but there
    was no consistent pattern when confidence in and liking of reading were examined for each
    ethnic grouping. More students from higher social-economic backgrounds enjoyed reading than
    those from lower social-economic homes. Year 4 and Year 8 students with special education
    needs felt less confident in their writing abilities, than those with no special education needs
•   Those who were less positive and less confident also had lower achievement. But achievement
    appears to be more closely linked to students’ confidence than their attitudes.
•   Students’ confidence in reading increased significantly as the frequency with which they read
    for fun increased and when they had access to more books at home.

Teaching Practices

The early years
•   Home environment plays an important role in a child’s literacy development. While PIRLS
    found that most parents in New Zealand frequently engaged in practices that promote
    children’s literacy development at home, the kinds of activities and frequency of those practices
    differed by the child’s ethnicity and level of socioeconomic deprivation.
•   Variation was found in the level of understanding regarding early literacy practice across the
    early childhood sector. ERO found that most early learning centres have at least some focus
    on supporting the development of oral language. However, there is room for improvement
    including review of internal practice and assessment for learning.
•   Many services did not cater for the diversity of learners in their literacy programmes in any way
    and where they did, it was mostly by age and ability rather than gender or ethnicity. Many were
    not capitalising on the home languages of learners, building strong relationships with parents
    and whānau or taking deliberate actions to help maintain home languages.

Primary school – Years 1 to 3
•   Many schools used inexperienced teachers to teach in junior classrooms. ERO reported that
    just over two-thirds of schools had good or high-quality reading instruction, while just under
    two-thirds of schools had good or high-quality writing instruction. Two-thirds of schools had at
    least some focus on supporting oral language development, but this tended to be stronger in
    Year 1 than in Years 2 and 3.
•   Effective instruction requires effective assessment. ERO found that nearly one third of schools
    were using reading assessments ineffectively or not at all and fewer schools were effectively
    using writing assessments to improve teaching and learning.
•   Providing books for children to read over summer holidays can reduce reading learning loss.

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Primary School - Years 4 to 8
•   Many children were found to be lacking a literacy-rich environment at home and one in five
    Year 8 students say they spend very little time reading in their own time. This was particularly
    true for boys, ākonga Māori, and students with special education needs.
•   New Zealand teachers of Year 5 students were using similar practices teaching reading to
    teachers in other countries but there were some significant differences:
       o   they were more likely to teach reading to children in same ability groups and less likely
           to use whole class teaching;
       o   they were more likely to explicitly teach decoding strategies than they were to teach
           new vocabulary and those frequently learning decoding skills had lower achievement;
       o   they were more likely to ask their students to read silently on their own and much less
           likely to ask their students to read aloud;
       o   they were mostly using short stories and were less likely to use longer fiction books
           than other English-language countries;
       o   they assessed less frequently but gave individualised feedback more frequently than
           other countries.
•   Teaching children to summarise main ideas and how to skim or scan were common activities in
    New Zealand and other English-speaking countries. Almost all students in English-language
    countries were asked to practice their text-based comprehension skills at least weekly.
•   Where teachers had a higher emphasis on academic success, students tended to do better at
    reading comprehension. However, spending more time in reading instruction didn’t necessarily
    equate to higher reading achievement. Students were given more reading activities than writing
    activities. Teachers also reported feeling more confident about teaching reading than writing or
    viewing.
•   Teachers were positive about using digital technologies and used them often. But digital
    technology was used a lot for searching for information and frequent use of digital devices did
    not equate to higher achievement.

Secondary school, particularly Years 9 to 11
•   As children become young people, they report less engagement and are absent from school
    more. Fewer 15-year-olds enjoy reading or read for enjoyment than used to. Many were not
    aware of effective strategies for understanding, remembering and summarising texts
•   Most New Zealand 15-year-olds reported their English teacher was enthusiastic and supportive
    and these experiences were associated with higher reading achievement. However, students
    who were economically disadvantaged were less likely to experience their teachers as
    enthusiastic and supportive. Many 15-year-olds observed that their teachers regularly adapted
    lessons to meet the needs of learners, but fewer Māori or disadvantaged learners reported this.
    Just over half of 15-year-olds were assigned long texts to read and they tended to have higher
    reading performance than those assigned shorter texts.
•   Few schools were found to be highly effective in both gathering and using achievement
    information to promote success in literacy particularly at the transition into Year 9. While more
    than half of 15-year-olds reported receiving frequent feedback in their English classes, boys
    and Pacific students reported higher levels of feedback than girls and non-Pacific students.

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Te Whāriki and the New Zealand Curriculum

Te Whāriki is organised around the five strands of wellbeing, belonging, contribution,
communication, and exploration. The relevant strand for early literacy skills is communication
where they are expected to (among other things):
•   develop verbal communication skills, both understanding oral language and using it for a range
    of purposes; and
•   experience stories and symbols of their own and other cultures and thereby being able to
    recognise print symbols and concepts and use them with enjoyment, meaning, and purpose.
The English learning area of the New Zealand Curriculum is structured around two interconnected
strands, each encompassing the oral, written, and visual forms of the language. The strands
differentiate between the modes in which students are primarily:
•   making meaning of ideas or information they receive (Listening, Reading, and Viewing); and
•   creating meaning for themselves or others (Speaking, Writing, and Presenting).

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Progress and Achievement

Early learning
The 4.5-year-olds in GUiNZ study were, on average, making good progress in developing
their early literacy skills

The Growing Up in New Zealand (GUiNZ) assessed literacy skills of 4.5 year-olds using tools that
measure letter naming speed and the ability to write their name in a recognisable way. 1 Letter
knowledge and naming speed, are simple early predictors of progress in literacy over the first one
to two years at school. The ability to write words is a more complex measure of early literacy. It
also predicts progress in reading and writing after entry to school. Lower assessment scores
provide tentative indications of possible difficulties, or of potentially lower than expected progress
and achievement following the transition to school.
When assessed for letter naming speed (how many randomly arranged capital and lower-case
letters could be named in one minute), the large majority of children performed at a level indicating
they were well on the way to being ready for school. Within this group of children that had
developed literacy ready for school were both girls and boys, children from all ethnic groups and
children from all levels of socio-economic deprivation. Children correctly named 8.4 letters on
average but there was large variation with some children not being able to name any letters of the
alphabet while others rapidly identified many letters.
More than half of the children (57%) could write their name in a recognisable way. However, this
means that nearly half of the children (43%) were not able to write their name, suggesting some
may make slow progress in learning to write at school. Differences in levels on entry to school in
more complex measures, such as writing, tend to remain.

But there were differences across gender, ethnicity, and level of socio-economic
deprivation2

Thirty-one percent of children could name no letters, indicating possible later difficulty, and this was
unevenly distributed. The authors of the letter naming speed test suggest that there is no particular
expected benchmark for this test but students in the lowest 20 percent should be considered at risk
for poor outcomes. Of those students in this risk group there were:
•      more boys (22%) than girls (16%);
•      more children who identified as Māori (33%) or Pacific Island (37%) than Pākehā European
       (14%) or Asian (10%) children; and
•      more children from homes with the high levels of deprivation (30%) than children from
       economically well-off homes (i.e. with the lowest level of socio-economic deprivation - 11%).3

1 Note that GUiNZ as a study repeatedly visited the mothers since before the birth of their child. Although light touch, it is likely to make
the mothers more alert to their child’s developmental needs (an intervention of sorts), so findings are likely to be slightly more positive
than might be found in the population.
2   Note that proportionately more Māori and Pacific learners in this study come from low socio-economic homes.
3 Note that the original analysis quotes odds ratios. For the OR values refer to the original source:
https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/195185/He-Whakaaro-What-developmental-resources-do-our-pre-
schoolers-have.pdf

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And there were similar differences for writing ability. Of those who could clearly write their name,
there were:
•    more girls (68%) than boys (41%);
•    more Asian children (68%) and Pākehā European children (63%) than Māori children (39%) or
     Pacific Island children (41%); and
•    more children from economically well-off homes (i.e. with the lowest level of socio-economic
     deprivation - 68%) than children from homes with the high levels of deprivation (41%).

About two thirds of mothers in GUiNZ believed their children had the pre-reading and
writing skills necessary to start school.

The percentage of mothers who were worried (38%) that their children did not have the literacy
skills necessary to start school is similar to the percentage of children judged as possibly still at
early stages of literacy learning. Mothers of Māori and Pacific Islands children and mothers from
homes with the high levels of deprivation, rated their children as less well prepared in literacy than
other mothers rated their children.
This finding is similar to that of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) where
around one-third of parents (31%) said their child could only do some of the early literacy tasks
when they began school.4

4This measure summarises parents responses to a question about how well their child could do a series of literacy activities when they
began school: see http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/pirls2016/international-results/pirls/home-environment-support/could-do-literacy-tasks/

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Primary School
Overall New Zealand learners in Year 5 generally perform around the middle in reading
when compared to their peers in other countries

In the 2016 edition of the IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), on
average, New Zealand learners performed around the middle when compared to the 49 other
countries and 11 jurisdictions that participated. The mean reading score for New Zealand was 523,
which is significantly5 higher than the PIRLS scale centre point of 500, but significantly lower than
29 other countries.
A reasonable percentage of New Zealand children (41%) also reached the High Benchmark in
PIRLS, meaning they demonstrated an ability to engage with increasingly complex texts and
questions. However, this proportion was lower than the international median and most English-
speaking countries.

New Zealand has a wider variation in achievement than many other comparable countries

Compared to most other English-language countries,6 New Zealand had a very wide distribution of
scores in PIRLS (over 300 points) which reflects the large range of abilities demonstrated by the
children who participated. While one in ten New Zealand children (11%) demonstrated very strong
reading comprehension skills, achieving at or above the Advanced International Benchmark, one in
ten children did not reach the low benchmark (10%) which means they generally had difficulty with
locating and reproducing explicitly-stated information and making straightforward inferences even
when reading the simpler reading passages.

And New Zealand’s overall reading performance for Year 5 dipped in 2015

New Zealand’s mean reading score in PIRLS was stable from 2001 to 2010 but dropped a
significant 8 points (from 531 to 523) from 2010 to 2015. New Zealand’s relative ranking among
countries has also dropped since 2001.7
The reduction in the average reading score for New Zealand was due to a decrease in
performance across the board, with the whole distribution shifting. That is, on average, both the
bottom 25 percent of students scored lower than previously and the 25 percent of highest
performing students also scored lower, along with a downward shift in the centre of the distribution.

The proportion of learners meeting curriculum expectations for literacy declines as they
move through year levels in primary school in New Zealand

In the second cycle of the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement (NMSSA) most Year
4 students (76% and 78% respectively) are meeting curriculum expectations for listening and
viewing. By year 8, the proportion of learners meeting curriculum expectations for listening and
viewing was smaller (see Table 1 below). Compared with listening and viewing, the findings for
reading, speaking and writing were not as positive at the Year 4 level. While the decrease for

5   Whenever we say ‘significant’ this refers to statistical significance.
6 The countries where either all or the majority of students assessed in PIRLS are taught entirely or mostly in the medium of English, or
receive most of their instruction in English. Some children in the 10 countries learn in another language. There were also Arabic-
speaking countries that assess in English but they weren’t included in this particular analysis.
7 When compared with the other 18 countries who have participated in every cycle of PIRLS, from being around the middle in 2001
(below 10 and above 8) it has dropped to being significantly below 15 countries. This puts it in the group of 4 countries performing
significantly below the average for these 18 countries. Much of the change in ranking in early years was other countries improving while
New Zealand remained stable.

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reading was not as large as for speaking and writing, by Year 8, the majority of learners were not
meeting expectations for speaking or writing.
A large proportion of learners (approximately 40%) failed to meet curriculum expectations for
reading at both Year 4 and Year 8 and nearly two-thirds did not meet expectations in writing at
Year 8.
Table 1: Percentage of students meeting curriculum expectations for aspects of English assessed
by NMSSA, by year level

                 NMSSA                 Year 4 (% of                    Year 8 (% of                    Percentage
                 English               students meeting                students meeting                change
                 learning area         curriculum Level 2)             curriculum Level 4)

                 Writing                            63                              35                         -28

                 Speaking                           56                              40                         -16

                 Reading                            63                              56                          -7

                 Listening                          76                              65                         -11

                 Viewing                            78                              65                         -13

An analysis of e-asTTle data from 2011 to 2016 (covering learners from Year 4 to Year 10) found a
similar pattern of decline in proportions meeting curriculum expectation to that found in NMSSA for
both reading and writing.8 The median reading achievement for students in Year 4 to Year 7 met
curriculum expectations but declined below curriculum expectations for Year 8 to Year 10. Median
achievement in writing was below curriculum expectations for students for all the years from Year 4
to Year 10.
These trends suggest that not enough progress is made between Year 4 and Year 8 to meet the
demands of the curriculum by the end of Year 8. Analysis also indicates that even when some
learners make the expected level of progress against the curriculum, they still fail to meet
curriculum expectations for their year level, due to having started already behind. These students
would need to progress faster than the pace of the curriculum to catch up.

And there are wide variations of achievement against the curriculum within year levels

Data from e-asTTle across school to Year 10 indicates that the overall achievement scores in
reading and writing differ widely for students at the same year level and this starts right at Year 1.9
This variation could be as much as two curriculum levels for reading, or four years of learning,
between children at the same year level. The spread of achievement is wider for writing than for
reading, with some learners in Year 8 still at curriculum level 2 and others achieving at curriculum
level 5.

8Note that the main purpose of the tool is to support teachers in their teaching. It is not used evenly across different types of schools
and it is used for different purposes throughout the year. The analysis only used subsets of the full data to ensure that it reflected
achievement across the year. In addition, adjustments for bias in the data were made when computing national estimates of
achievement or progress, particularly for Years 9 and 10 students.
9   Some e-asTTle assessments only start at Year 4 but there is some data available from Year 1.

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Average levels of achievement for reading and writing vary across sub-populations of
learners

Socio-economic factors and gender are strongly associated with achievement in literacy. While a
student’s socio-economic status does not predetermine their performance in literacy, evidence has
shown a clear positive relationship between average achievement at primary school and socio-
economic status, either of the learner or their school (for example analyses based on school
decile).

On average, learners from higher socio-economic backgrounds perform better than those
from lower socio-economic backgrounds

An analysis by socio-economic levels of the students in PIRLS, (using home resources as a proxy),
showed a large difference in reading achievement between those from higher socio-economic
backgrounds and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds (78 points between the top 25%
and the bottom 25%).

On average, learners who attend higher socio-economic schools perform better than those
who attend lower socio-economic schools

The difference in average NMSSA scores between students attending decile 1, 2 or 3 schools and
those attending decile 8, 9 or 10 schools is equivalent to the average amount of progress
measured over about two years of schooling. The differences are bigger for listening (four years
difference at Year 8) than viewing, reading, or writing, with writing having the smallest differences
(roughly equivalent to one and one-and-a-half years of progress at Years 4 and 8 respectively).
The e-asTTle data shows a similar pattern, with the difference in average achievement between
students in the low decile group and those in the high decile group being on average half a
curriculum level, or 1 year of schooling in reading and writing.
Other countries use different measures for socio-economic status of schools than New Zealand.
So, to be comparable, the IEA created a measure based on questions to principals. PIRLS showed
large differences in literacy achievement by the socio-economic level of the school that learners
attended (67 points – 3 times the difference between boys and girls; see below). This gap was
larger in New Zealand than for most other countries in PIRLS (the international average difference
was 43 points).

Socio-economic disadvantages impact more Māori and Pacific learners

The differences between broad ethnic groupings have been demonstrated to be highly related to
socio-economic circumstances, but do not explain all the differences. That is when comparing for
example, Māori learners with non-Māori learners, some of the difference can be attributed to socio-
economic status. For example, the NMSSA, PIRLS, and PAT data show that average achievement
in reading and writing is higher for Pākehā European and Asian students than for Māori or Pacific
students. However, Māori and Pacific students, as a group, are more likely than other students to
attend mid and lower-decile schools. In 2019 73 percent of students in deciles 1, 2 or 3 primary
schools were Māori or Pacific while only 15 percent of students in decile 8, 9 and 10 primary
schools where Māori or Pacific. We also know that some Māori and Pacific learners experience
bias and discrimination that impact their opportunity to learn. Therefore, when reading any
differences on the basis of just ethnicity, the reader should remember that some of that is the effect
of socio-economic circumstances of the family and the school as well as the effect of differential
opportunities to learn.

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Which is important because Māori and Pacific learners are an increasing part of the
population

The last few waves of census data show Māori and Pacific peoples are becoming a greater
proportion of the population as are Asian peoples.

Learning in a second language can help but only under certain circumstances

Studies of literacy development in bilingualism have shown that language and reading
comprehension can be enhanced by biliteracy. However, these positive outcomes are generally
found when the learner has a good quality bilingual education, developing appropriately good
competence in both languages. Where bilingual children are predominantly educated in their
second language (in our case English), and where the first language skills aren’t maintained and
improved, this can in turn negatively impact the acquisition of skills in the second language.
Findings from PIRLS 2016 showed that for New Zealand Year 5 learners, those who predominantly
spoke the test language at home had significantly higher achievement than those who sometimes
or never did (533 and 505 respectively – a difference of 28 score points). About a quarter of
learners sometimes or never spoke the language of the test at home. This differential in average
achievement demonstrates that the New Zealand system may not be taking advantage of all the
skills learners bring to the classroom.

On average, girls do better than boys in literacy

Boys’ and girls’ achievement is similar for most learning areas, however gender differences in
literacy are common across jurisdictions, including New Zealand. Evidence from PIRLS shows that
average reading comprehension achievement at Year 5 in New Zealand is higher for girls (533)
than boys (512), and this difference is larger in New Zealand than many other countries (12th
highest across the 49 countries).
The difference in achievement in writing and reading between girls and boys is maintained over the
years of primary schooling. NMSSA shows that the difference in average achievement between
boys and girls in reading at both Year 4 and Year 8 is equivalent to about one year of schooling,
while in writing it is about one and a half years.
The variation in achievement observed in the e-asTTle data is broadly consistent with NMSSA
results. For both reading and writing, the average achievement for girls is higher than for boys. At
the end of Year 8 the average achievement score for girls in writing is within curriculum level 4,
while almost half the boys are achieving below level 4.
Some commentators suggest this finding may be indicative of gendered expectations of boys to be
more active learners and girls to be more passive learners. Others argue that texts and tasks at an
early age favour the interests of girls over that of boys. Whatever the reason, the outcome is that
more boys than girls are labelled as poor readers and writers and have trouble using these skills to
access other parts of the curriculum.

Rates of progress appear similar across all subpopulations and differences in achievement
are likely due to different starting points

Both e-asTTle and NMSSA can tell us about rates of progress across primary schooling. While e-
asTTle shows us there is wide variation in the yearly progress made by students in the same year
level, both e-asTTle and NMSSA data suggest that on average all student subgroups are
progressing at similar rates. That is, regardless of grouping, New Zealand students are progressing
more slowly against the curriculum in the upper years of primary school on average.
The differences in achievement across subpopulations largely reflect different starting points when
entering the school system and a systematic failure to accelerate progress for those who have

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started behind. In these circumstances, even when a learner’s rate of progress meets curriculum
expectations, their level of achievement may fall short of expectations.

Secondary schooling – Years 9 to 13
On average, New Zealand 15-year-old learners perform well in reading literacy
internationally

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a survey that measures the
reading literacy, scientific literacy, and mathematical literacy of 15-year-olds across multiple
countries. In 2018, New Zealand learners scored an average of 506 points for reading in PISA,
significantly above the OECD average of 487 points.
The great majority of New Zealand learners (81%) attained at least Level 2 proficiency in reading,
compared to an OECD average (77%). Level 2 is considered the minimum baseline at which
students demonstrate the skills and competencies needed later in life. Thirteen percent of students
in New Zealand were top performers in reading, compared to an OECD average of 9 percent.

Nationally many students leave school with a qualification indicating a functional level of
literacy

NCEA Level 2 is considered an ‘upper-secondary’ qualification internationally and represents a
basic minimum benchmark for literacy and numeracy needed to function in society. In 2019, 88
percent of school leavers left with an NCEA qualification of at least Level 1, 79 percent had
achieved Level 2 or above and 54 percent left with NCEA Level 3. Thirty-nine percent of school
leavers achieved a University Entrance award. 10.

Although New Zealand learners continue to have a large level of variation in achievement
compared with other countries

Data from PISA shows that, as for primary learners, secondary achievement in New Zealand has a
larger variation when compared internationally, with high levels of both top performers and very low
performers. The difference between high and low performers was large (278 points between top
10% and bottom 10% of learners) compared to the OECD average (259).

The strong association between socio-economic factors and achievement observed at
primary level is still visible at secondary and is large when compared internationally

PISA 2018 data showed a large, difference (96 points) in reading performance between New
Zealand’s advantaged students (558) and disadvantaged students (462 points).11 The difference
between these groups in New Zealand was larger than on average across OECD countries (88
points).

10 Questions have been raised about the reliability of achievement standards attainment as an indicator that required literacy levels
have been reached and there are plans to increase the robustness of literacy assessment in NCEA. Therefore, attainment of NCEA
Level 2 may also have limited reliability in indicating the baseline levels of literacy have been achieved. NCEA data sheets can be found
at educationcounts.govt.nz/statistics/school-leavers.
11 PISA’s measure of a student’s socio-economic status is the index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status. This index is created
using information about the level of parent’s education and occupation, the number of home possessions that can be considered
material wealth, and the educational resources available at home. Students are classified as socio-economically advantaged if their
values on the ESCS index were among the top quarter in New Zealand, and socio-economically disadvantaged if their ESCS index
were among the bottom quarter.

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And this association can be seen nationally in overall NCEA data

While we don’t have the evidence to demonstrate a direct causal link between lack of literacy and
lack of qualification, many routes for obtaining a qualification require learners to be able to read
and write to a sufficient standard. In 2019, 91 percent of students from schools in deciles 9 and 10
left school with at least an NCEA Level 2 qualification compared to 65 percent for school leavers in
deciles 1 and 2. This was a stark difference of 26 percentage points. While only one in every ten
students in high socio-economic schools left school with less than the minimum desirable
qualification, one in every 3 students in the low socio-economic schools left without this
qualification. This lack of qualification would in turn affect their chances for both well-paid
employment and continuing education.

As at the primary level, we can see from the overall NCEA data that socio-economic
differences impact more Māori and Pacific learners

As mentioned in the primary section, socio-economic status partially explains ethnic differences.
Although not literacy-specific, when looking at NCEA Level 2 attainment by ethnicity groups, we
see a similar pattern to that observed for literacy at primary school. In 2019, Asian students had
the highest percentage of school leavers attaining at least NCEA Level 2 or equivalent (90%),
followed by Pākehā European (82%), Pacific students, (74%) and Māori (65%).
Since 2009, there has been an 11 percentage point increase in those who attain at least NCEA
Level 2 or equivalent, with 79 percent in 2019 compared to 68 percent in 2009. The largest
percentage point increase in those attaining at least NCEA Level 2 or equivalent has been in Māori
and Pacific school leavers, with an increase of 19 and 17 percentage points respectively between
2009 and 2019. 12
These changes indicate that the disparities between most ethnic groups have reduced over time
but an achievement gap remains for Māori and Pacific students. The gap in NCEA Level 2
attainment between lower and higher decile schools has also reduced (from 36 percentage points
to 26).

On average girls in secondary school outperform boys for reading

In 2018, 15-year-old girls continued the trend observed in all cycles of PISA of achieving at a
significantly higher level, on average, than boys (520 points compared with 491 points
respectively).
For female school leavers in 2019, NCEA Level 2 attainment (81%) was higher than for their male
counterparts (76%). This may indicate the importance of literacy for overall performance in NCEA.

But since 2000, New Zealand’s average reading performance internationally has declined
significantly

According to PISA, the average performance of New Zealand 15-year-olds for reading significantly
declined between 2000 and 2018 (from 529 to 506 points). Most of the decline occurred between
the 2009 and 2012 cycles (from 521 to 512 points). This decline was also observed in some other
jurisdictions.13
As was seen with the primary school cohorts, the proportion of advanced readers has declined
(from 19% in 2000 to 13% in 2018). Meanwhile, the proportion of low-achieving students has

12There has also been a change in proportions attaining UE during this period, but the requirements for obtaining UE also changed
during this time, so the proportions are not reported here.
13 New Zealand is not the only country to see such a decline; Australia and Finland also had a large decline between 2000 and 2018
(26 score points). However other countries improved during that same period.

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increased (from 14% in 2000 to 19% in 2018). The decline occurred for both socio-economically
advantaged and disadvantaged learners as well as for girls and boys.
The average score for both advantaged and disadvantaged students has declined since 2009, with
advantaged students declining slightly more (21 points), compared to the disadvantaged students
(13 points). Similarly, girls have declined more (24 points) since 2009 than boys (8 points) thus
closing the gap (from 45 points in 2009 to only 29 points in 2018).

Disparities in access to literacy learning may persist in secondary schooling

The Starpath project found unequal access to relevant NCEA subjects for Māori and Pacific
learners and poor understanding of NCEA by them and their whānau. They found some teachers
had lower expectations of Māori and Pacific learners, and even when there was a school-wide
focus on high expectations, this didn’t necessarily translate into appropriate actions in the
classrooms.
In Phase 2 of the study, they attempted to increase the focus on subject-specific literacies. While
they found an improvement in practice, they also found little evidence of a shift in the amount of
‘critical’ literacy discussion or instruction, theorised to be important for attainment of UE and
success in degree-level study. This may be one reason why there was not a systematic upward
shift in the pass rates of ‘literacy rich’ NCEA Level 2 achievement standards across the time period
where increased NCEA attainment has been observed.

Learners with learning support needs
We don’t have much data about learners with learning support needs

We know that some children have more difficulties learning to read than others. Sometimes this is
due to unidentified (and identified) conditions such as dyslexia; sometimes interventions such as
reading recovery help the child improve to the stage where they no longer need additional help.
However, we don’t have anything much in the way of system-wide data which would allow us to
know what is working, for whom, under which circumstances. In particular, it has been identified
that where there is data about learners with learning support needs, it is not as comprehensive as
it could be. For example, we can find out about the number of learners receiving reading
recovery14, but what this data can’t tell us is the level of unmet need. We could, however, infer from
the PISA data that those nearly 20 percent of learners who aren’t achieving at or above level 2
proficiency (the minimum benchmark considered necessary to function in society) have unmet
need.
NMSSA explicitly included some learners with high and moderate education needs in the
assessments for reading, writing, listening and viewing and included their need assessment in the
data. This enabled some analyses to be undertaken but the numbers of students were relatively
small and the findings should therefore be interpreted with caution. This is particularly true with
regard to the high special education needs group from which many of the special education needs
student withdrawals are likely to have come. As such, this group cannot be considered a
statistically representative sample.
Some students identified as having special education needs met curriculum expectations. As could
be seen with the population as a whole, more learners met curriculum expectations at Year 4 than
Year 8 and more were achieving in listening and viewing than in reading and writing. Of these four
aspects of literacy, writing for Year 8 students was the worst, with fewest students successfully
performing at or above curriculum expectations.

14See https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/statistics/schooling/reading-recovery. This data for 2017 suggests reading recovery was
successful for about three-quarters of learners.

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As shown in Table 2, a relatively large proportion of Year 4 learners with special education needs
achieved at or above curriculum expectations in listening and viewing, but the proportion had
decreased quite substantially by Year 8.
Table 2: Percentage of students with special education needs meeting curriculum expectations for
aspects of English assessed by NMSSA, by year level15

                  NMSSA                           Year 4                              Year 8
                  English                (% of students meeting              (% of students meeting
                  learning area            curriculum Level 2)                 curriculum Level 4)

                  Listening                           56                                   35

                  Viewing                             51                                   28

                  Writing                             26                                    7

                  Reading                             26                                   18

                  Speaking                            32                                   23

Key takeaways about achievement and progress
»    Overall, many of our learners are performing well in literacy achievement and progress, in both
     national and international contexts. However, there are wide variations throughout all year levels
     and across gender, ethnicity and socio-economic status groupings. Our current system for
     literacy learning is clearly not working for a reasonably large group of students.

»    While data indicates that all student subgroups are progressing at similar rates, on average,
     those who start behind for literacy learning, or who fall behind early, do not always catch up.
     These findings indicate a need for additional and systematic support in order to accelerate
     progress.

15Note that as mentioned earlier, this table should only be read as indicative as the group is small and cannot be
considered representative

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Student confidence and interest

Many children in New Zealand enjoy reading

New Zealand children’s views about reading were ‘typical’ of children from other countries in
PIRLS, with 44 percent reporting they very much like reading (43% on average internationally). Not
all children were positive: 42 percent “somewhat liked reading”, but some did not like it (14%).
The difference between the mean achievement scores for New Zealand children who said they like
reading and those who do not was reasonably large; about 27 scale score points, which was
statistically significant.

But they were much less confident about themselves as readers compared with their
international counterparts

Compared with their international counterparts, New Zealand Year 5 students tended to have
relatively low reading confidence. PIRLS found that New Zealand children generally did not view
themselves as being good at reading. Only 35 percent of New Zealand children were found to be
very confident compared with 45 percent on average internationally.
PISA found that New Zealand 15-year-olds generally find reading more difficult than students in the
OECD on average. In particular, compared to the OECD average proportions, slightly more New
Zealand students find it difficult to answer a question about a text (33% in NZ c.f. OECD average of
26%) and agreed they always had difficulty with reading (23% in NZ c.f. OECD average of 19%).

As they grow older, they become less positive and less confident about reading

NMSSA findings show that both Year 4 and Year 8 students had positive attitudes towards reading
at school. The majority of students indicated that they enjoy reading. However, more Year 4
students generally had positive attitudes to reading at school than Year 8 students, with 76 percent
of Year 4 and 59 percent of Year 8 saying they enjoy reading.
Generally, older children and young people were also less confident about reading than younger
children. Year 4 students also scored higher, on average, on the Confidence in English Reading
scale than Year 8 students by 6 scale score units.

Many felt more confident in some tasks than others

A large proportion of students at both levels also reported that they were good at ‘understanding
the ideas and characters in stories’, but overall they were less confident about their ability to ‘make
links between what they read and what happens in their lives’.

Since 2009, fewer 15-year-olds enjoy reading and a large proportion of them do not read for
fun

In 2018, just over half of 15-year-olds who participated in the PISA test indicated that they do not
read for pleasure by agreeing that they ‘read only if they have to’ or ‘only to get information they
need’ (52% agree or strongly agree for each statement). Students’ enjoyment of reading has
declined since 2009, when the proportions agreeing with these two negative statements was lower
(38% and 40% respectively). Over the same period, the proportion of students agreeing that
‘reading is one of my favourite hobbies’ decreased (from 38% in 2009 to 34% in 2018).

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More girls felt positive and confident in their reading and writing abilities than boys

More girls than boys, at both the primary and secondary levels, were positive and confident in their
reading and writing abilities. NMSSA found that more girls than boys were confident in their
reading and writing abilities (differences of 2 to 4 scale score units on the respective scales at each
Year level).
PIRLS and PISA both found that more girls enjoyed reading than boys. Based on the data from
PIRLS, there were more girls who very much like reading boys (50% of girls compared with 39% of
boys), and more boys who do not like reading (9% of girls compared with 18% of boys). In PISA
girls were more likely to say that they enjoy talking to others about books and that reading is one of
their favourite hobbies.

There was no consistent pattern when confidence in and liking of reading were examined
for each ethnic grouping

In PIRLS, more Pākehā European students (42%) were very confident readers than Asian (35%),
Māori (23%) and Pacific students (21%).
However, more Pacific and Asian students were positive about reading than their Māori and
Pākehā European peers. About half of both Pacific (52%) and Asian (50%) students very much like
reading compared with about two in every five Māori (41%) and Pākehā/European (43%) students.
The relationship between reading achievement and students’ attitudes towards reading, as
measured by PIRLS, was relatively strong for Pākehā European students but weak for Pacific
students. The small proportion of Pacific students (8%) who did not like reading scored an average
of 12 score points higher than their counterparts who very much like reading (492 compared with
480).

Students from higher social-economic backgrounds enjoyed reading more than those from
lower social-economic homes

In PISA, compared to socio-economically disadvantaged students, advantaged students reported
greater enthusiasm, academic support, and engaging and adaptive instruction from teachers.
Disadvantaged students tended to enjoy reading less, be assigned shorter texts, used digital
devices less for schoolwork and were also less aware of effective reading strategies.

Year 4 and Year 8 students with special education needs felt less confident in their writing
abilities, than those with no special education needs

There was limited data on confidence and attitudes towards literacy for students with special
education needs. However, NMSSA found that students with special education needs expressed
lower levels of confidence, on average, in their reading and writing abilities than students with no
special education needs.

Those who were less positive and less confident also scored lower

Generally, children who enjoy and value reading are likely to read more frequently and read a
wider range of material than those who get little pleasure from reading. It was evident from across
the studies that those who were more positive and more confident on average scored higher than
those who were less positive and less confident.
The data from PIRLS and NMSSA showed that reading achievement was strongly related to
confidence. NMSSA also demonstrated that students who reported not feeling confident in reading
or writing tended to perform below expected curriculum levels at both Year 4 and Year 8 in those
areas of literacy. However, there were also some students who were very confident who also
performed below curriculum expectations.

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